Article Expert: Late 19th Century American Naturalism

Article Expert: Late Nineteenth-Century American Naturalism

Important Quotes

“A traditional and widely accepted concept of American naturalism, therefore, is that it is essentially realism infused with a pessimistic determinism.” (306)

“I suggest that the naturalistic novel usually contains two tensions or contradictions, and that the two in conjunction comprise both an interpretation of experience and a particular aesthetic recreation of experience.” (307)

“A naturalistic novel is thus an extension of realism only in the sense that both modes often deal with the local and contemporary. The naturalist, however, discovers in this material the extraordinary and excessive in human nature.” (307)

“It involves a belief that life on its lowest levels is not so simple as it seems to be from higher levels.” (308)

“Naturalism reflects an affirmative ethical conception of life, for it asserts the value of all life by endowing the lowest character with emotion and defeat and with moral ambiguity, no matter how poor or ignoble he may seem. The naturalist novel derives much of its aesthetic effect from these contrasts.” (308)

“Norris’s theme is that man’s racial atavism (particularly his brute sexual desire) and man’s individual family heritage (alcoholic degeneracy in McTeague’s case) can combine as a force toward a return to the emotions and instincts of man’s animal past.” (309)



Donald Pizer sees naturalism as somewhat of a contradiction. Although it sheds light on the conditions of the poor and the mundane, it inevitably grants them importance through breaking with realism and embracing the implausible. In other words, naturalist writers engage with popular tropes of fiction (violence, sex, etc), only against a backdrop of poorness and unsophistication.

He also discusses McTeague (and naturalism broadly) through the idea of resistance to one’s own animal nature (sex and violence), which ultimately fails (DETERMINISM!) This struggle pits the well-meaning subject against his decaying world, of which he only further decays in his efforts to alter it. Such is our pathetic, unchangeable, condition.


  1. How is sexuality treated from a male perspective in the naturalist novel? How telling is this conception of male sexuality as animalistic, compared to its depiction in something like Tess? Does having a male protagonist change it? Same questions for violence.

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